Why are the conclusions of the Yarnell Hill Fire investigation so timid?

 

Some brutal details have emerged about the Granite Mountain Hotshots' last day of life. The 19 firefighters were just 600 yards from the safety of the ranch they were headed toward when they were forced to deploy their fire shelters and were quickly overtaken by flames and 2,000-plus-degree heat. Just 40 minutes or so before that, they were "in the black" -- the firefighting term for an already-burned safe zone. Had they stayed there, they'd probably still be alive.

One of the most haunting questions of the investigation of the incident commissioned by the Arizona State Forestry Division, and released this weekend, is why they moved. But it will remain forever unanswered.

That's not to say many questions were answered by the investigators' report -- at least not directly. Unlike the joint Bureau of Land Management-U.S. Forest Service report on the 1994 South Canyon Fire in Colorado, in which 14 firefighters lost their lives, it identified no "direct causes" of the accident. It didn't explicitly lay blame at anyone's feet, or pin it to any specific operational missteps.

There's probably a reason for this, and it might be rooted in the Thirtymile Fire.

That 2001 blaze in Washington's Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest killed four firefighters. The investigation that followed found that the fire's managers at some point violated or disregarded all 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and some of the 18 Watch Out Situations -- basic operational protocols designed to prevent fatalities. Though it didn't blame any one person, the report used those manager's names throughout. And it reached some firmly worded conclusions, including that "leadership, management and command and control were all ineffective."

Congress passed a law the following year requiring the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate the deaths of any Forest Service firefighters overtaken by flames "to determine if any crimes were committed, so that a firefighter could be charged and possibly sent to prison," according to Wildfire Today. The incident commander on the Thirtymile Fire was subsequently charged with manslaughter and making false statements. The manslaughter charges were reduced, but he pled guilty to the false statements indictment. This hadn't happened before and it sent shivers through the firefighting community.

Here's Wildfire Today's Bill Gabbert describing why this punitive approach to tragedy can be problematic:

Since those felony charges were filed against a firefighter who may or may not have made an error in judgement while fighting a fire, most wildland firefighters with any connection at all to a serious accident have had reservations about talking to investigators. They are being advised behind the scenes to “lawyer up” and to say little if anything about what they know or observed.

...If firefighters can’t feel free to discuss what happened on a fire, finding any lessons to be learned is going to be difficult. This could result in the same mistakes costing more lives.

Recently, Gabbert reports, federal guidelines for producing reports on these investigations were changed, likely out of fear of lawsuits. They now call for a public report detailing the factual information -- who went where and when -- but not drawing any "inferences, conclusions or recommendations." A separate report, not to be made public, would take those second steps. "The guide tells investigators to avoid analyzing whether basic fire-safety protocols were violated and to destroy draft documents after the inquiry is done," according to USA Today. Gabbert predicted that the new policy would result "in public reports that are much different from those we have seen in recent years," and would inhibit the public's and firefighters' ability to learn lessons that could prevent future fatalities.

The Yarnell Hill report, a state-based effort, didn't follow the new federal guidelines; it released the factual report and the analysis at the same time. Still, it did read quite differently from past reports. Not a single proper name was used. And it was very cautiously worded, drawing no strong conclusions about what should have been done differently. It found that "the judgments and decisions of the incident management organizations managing this fire were reasonable," and uncovered "no indication of negligence, reckless actions, or violations or policy or protocol."

"I think there will be policy changes out of this," says Michael Kodas, the associate director of the University of Colorado's Center for Environmental Journalism, who is writing a book about the global rise of mega-fires. "But this almost timid method of putting together a report can't help but slow that process down."

And if you read between the lines, Kodas says, it's undeniable that mistakes were made. The report confirmed that the fire's command center, for instance, didn't know exactly where the Granite Mountain Hotshots were located when they went into crisis mode because they had been out of radio communication for about 30 minutes. It was during those 30 minutes that the hotshots moved from the black. When at one point the crew attempted to make contact, there was so much radio traffic that they were told to 'stop yelling.' That's not to say anyone was intentionally shrugging them off, but it's an indication of a communications breakdown. Confusion was rampant at critical moments.

"Just the fact that they were out of touch with these guys for 30 minutes is a huge mistake," Kodas says. "That they left the safe zone in the black -- those are all things that are not supposed to happen." And though no one will ever know for sure, the report speculated that the hotshots left the safe zone to "re-engage" -- to try to protect houses in the fire's path. It confirmed, if tentatively, many people's worst fear: that they died trying to save things that, unlike their lives, actually were expendable -- houses built hazardously close to highly ignitable forests.

This may be where the ultimate lesson of the Yarnell Fire lies, Kodas says. "It's indicative of how a simple fire can in a very short period of time become incredibly complicated as soon as you involve communities." Though Yarnell had a fire protection plan, and the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew was formed to reduce hazardous fuel loads near homes, less than half of the homes there had proper defensible space, perimeters cleared of trees and brush to prevent flames from reaching the homes themselves. "Increasingly, wildland firefighters are being asked to protect property," Kodas says. "Communities don't want to hear that the solution to this problem is to have firefighters stand down. That if more than half of the homes are not defendable, we're not going in -- not risking our lives in a dangerous community."

Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor. She tweets @callycarswell.

Photo: A mural for the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Courtesy Flickr user dagnyg, licensed under Creative Commons.

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